The dirty business of politics and friendship

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A meeting of minds and hearts? President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations on 20 September 2017

AMIDST the hot air sprouted by politicians during this December/January break, US president Donald Trump took the cake for something significant for South African Jews who consider themselves both Zionist and African.

This story goes back to January last year, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent the newly inaugurated Trump a warm message: “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump.” Here was a man, said Netanyahu and Israeli rightists, who would unequivocally support Israel, including West Bank settlements, and was not afraid to stand up to the Palestinians and the Muslim world – a welcome contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama. Conservative Jews, including South Africans, backed Trump, particularly among the Orthodox, hoping he would strengthen Israel’s right wing.

He pleased them further last December by announcing that the US recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, upending decades of established US policy, and would begin moving the American embassy there. Delighted Israelis decided to name a planned railway station after him near the Old City. Photos of Trump standing at the kotel caused Jews worldwide to think he was their friend.

But be careful who you call your friend. Michael Wolff, celebrated author of the bombshell new book “Fire and Fury,” exposing the White House’s disastrous inner workings, said in interviews that Trump is racist, xenophobic and sexist, views women in “as transactional a way as he thinks about everything” and is “aware of who is Jewish in a way that feels creepy,” although not saying he is anti-Semitic. Trump denies it all.

Never one to disappoint, Trump dropped a new bombshell last week in a meeting with lawmakers at the Oval Office on immigration reform, where he called African nations “shithole countries”, provoking outrage worldwide.

Netanyahu boldly declared recently that Israel is “coming back to Africa,” amid high-profile visits to African countries to strengthen ties. Does he have the courage to criticise his “friend” Trump for his comments about Africa? Trump is child-like, and one day when he is piqued by something Israel does, will use a similar slur for it.

What do conservative South African Jews think? Will they continue applauding Trump because he supports Israel and Jerusalem as its capital? Or broadcast disgust for his comments about their African home?

They can’t hide behind the notion that it is not their affair what the American president does in relation to other countries. Trump’s words are gutter-level politics which dehumanise Africans. Jews have a long history of being dehumanised by such politics, prior to being attacked – by Nazis or others.

The African Union, representing the continent’s countries, condemned Trump. Will SA Jews stand with the AU, or refrain because some AU countries are anti-Israel? A group of 54 African countries at the UN denounced “the continuing and growing trend from the US administration toward Africa and people of African descent to denigrate the continent and people of colour.” Will Israel and Netanyahu support them against Trump?

At its recent national conference, the ANC resolved to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Israel. Jewish community organisations showed Israel loyalty by protesting and sending mass mailings to members. What about their loyalty to Africa? They may be Zionists, but they are also African.

A Jewish public statement denouncing Trump for insulting Africa could be appropriate. It might also gain credit for them in ANC ranks, or be an opportunity to agree for once with someone like ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte, who is no friend of Israel, but publically denounced Trump.

Cavorting with people like Trump may serve short-term goals for Israel as perceived by Netanyahu, but it generally comes back to haunt. Israel was built with the help of many Jews from those “shithole” African countries, including from South Africa.

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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Israel: Can the enemy of my enemy really be my friend?

John Vorster in Israel

A friend of convenience? South Africa’s prime minister John Vorster (second from right) is feted by Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and Menachem Begin (left) and Moshe Dayan during his 1976 visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Sa’ar Ya’acov

THE current diplomatic flurry about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting numerous African countries all over the continent to strengthen or create ties has many positive angles, but also rattles skeletons in the closet, particularly for South African Jews.

Ties to the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have a complicated history with high-points and lows. Israel’s geostrategic interests have long been promoted there, especially in the Horn and East Africa. Training in intelligence and security has been given to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and others.

What about South Africa? The strong Zionist links to Israel of the South African Jewish community is one aspect. But when older South African Jews think of Israel-SA ties, several uncomfortable affairs come to mind, particularly Israel’s strong military ties to the apartheid regime in the 1970s. A lot has happened since, and it is used today mainly to discredit contemporary Israel. But the notion of who we make friends with is important.

Israel openly criticised apartheid through the 1950s and 1960s, with the spectre of the Holocaust still in recent memory as a moral background. Alliances with post-colonial African governments were forged. Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Under pressure from the Arab world, most African states severed Israeli links, helping to make it a “pariah state”.

Looking around for friends, Israel drew close to another pariah state, South Africa. In 1976 it even invited SA Prime Minister John Vorster – former Nazi sympathiser and leader of the fascist Ossewabrandwag that sided with Hitler – for a state visit. South African Jews were uncomfortable with the ironies, as Vorster visited Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. His visit produced an Israel-South Africa alliance which became a leading weapons developer locally and internationally.

Israel’s attitude was:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They were both states driven by fear, seeing themselves in a struggle for their existence. In Israel until the late 1970s, the threat from its Arab neighbours was very real; the country had fought three wars to protect itself. White South Africans, meanwhile, watched with horror as colonial empires receded and black rule swept Africa. Scenes of whites fleeing Angola, Mozambique and (then) Rhodesia were used by the apartheid regime to terrify white citizens about black rule; phrases such as “swart gevaar” gained traction.

Today, South African Jews would like nothing more than for the SA government and the Israeli government to be on excellent terms. The countries do have formal diplomatic relations, including ambassadors, and below the surface there is much trade and other connections. But politically it remains a cold relationship, epitomised by calls from important ANC members to downgrade the links. The ANC’s criticism towards opposition leader Mmusi Maimane’s public visit to Israel earlier this year, ignoring President Jacob Zuma’s urging for South Africans not to visit there, shows how pervasive anti-Israel feelings still are.

Israel is strong today, no longer the pariah state it once was, even though it is portrayed that way in some places. Even BDS, the worldwide campaign to boycott it, has failed as an economic and diplomatic weapon. Israel’s gross domestic product of some $154 billion in 2006, when BDS began, has nearly doubled to $299 billion for 2015.

Israel still faces the eternal question of how political links should be used. Some of the African states that Netanyahu is courting use Israeli assistance to suppress democracy, engage in civil wars and perpetrate human rights violations. The dilemma about whether politics is only about “interests” or must also be driven by morality has no definitive answer. But it is given special fuel by the South African experience.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

Could Israel-Palestine peace rest on personal stories?

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CAN individual Palestinians and Israelis get past their violent history and see each other as people? A documentary screened in the past two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town shows attempts at this by a group calling itself Combatants for Peace. It has tiny echoes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, in which Israelis and Palestinians tell their personal stories to each other face to face, not sparing the pain.

Called “Disturbing the Peace”, the film, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young and feted by international film critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, was released last year and portrays real people and events, using archival and re-created material, describing the group’s genesis and formal establishment in 2005.

In the film, an Israeli soldier in an elite commando unit, Chen Alon, is ordered to deny passage at a checkpoint to a Palestinian father desperate to take sick children to hospital. Alon, a father himself, is appalled. Other Israelis are as well.

Another protagonist, Palestinian woman Shifa al-Qudsi, decides to become a suicide bomber to kill Israelis, but is arrested before carrying out the mission. She spends six years in an Israeli jail, where she encounters a guard whose brother was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. She is horrified. The film is peppered with grisly scenes of Israeli buses blown up by suicide bombers and Palestinian families grieving as they watch their homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers.

In one of the most potent scenes, a Palestinian man and woman watch on television the bodies of dead Israelis strewn on the ground after a Jerusalem bus bombing. The woman expresses sadness. The man is perplexed: “They are the oppressors! This is our struggle”. She retorts that Israeli mothers losing children suffer like Palestinian mothers.

Through a hush-hush message, the small Israeli group is invited to meet similar-minded Palestinians in the territories, secretly. They enter a room and are seated on a row of chairs facing several Palestinians. Both sides begin, tensely, telling their personal stories. The Israelis had friends and relatives killed in terrorist attacks; the Palestinians have lost friends and relatives, been held in Israeli prisons, and had homes demolished. It is an incredibly moving moment.

Through the formation of Combatants for Peace, the Israelis declare they will continue serving in the army defending Israel, but will refuse service in the occupied territories; the Palestinians renounce violence. Both sides call for a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Israelis in the group are despised by some other Israelis as leftist radicals. At a Tel Aviv rally, a man swears at a demonstrator: “You piece of shit! You are traitors! Go and live with them!”

The film’s weakness, yet paradoxically also its strength, is its focus solely on Israelis’ and Palestinians’ human side, not the macro-reality. Can a solution emerge from this level? Or are they naïve? Does a tiny group like this have relevance amidst the harsh reality of a century-old conflict in a region engulfed in turmoil, with terrorist group Hamas still vowing to eliminate Israel, and Iran, Russia and the United States embroiled with their own interests? And with the most right wing government in Israel’s history, still building settlements.

One vignette shows the group addressed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu through a specially recorded video, encouraging them to pursue their dream, as South Africans did.

In the last decade, the political centre supporting the two-state solution and opposing the occupation has withered in South Africa, leaving moderate Israeli-oriented Jews without a political home. Extremes such as BDS and the Jewish right-wing are dominant. This film contributes to a more hopeful approach which says people on the other side are human beings, not just killers. Cynics may roll their eyes and call it naïve, yet everything else has failed to solve the conflict.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Screening of Disturbing the Peace in Cape Town and Johannesburg arranged by South African branch of pro-peace organisation SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation)

Hitler as model: Who is SA’s public protector protecting?

Busisiwe Hitler Goodson

Should the SA Reserve Bank be modeled on Hitler’s economic vision for Germany? SA’s  controversial Public Protector endorses book by Holocaust denier Stephen Goodson (top left) praising Nazi policies, causing outrage among Jewish leaders

WHILE South African Public Protector (ombud) Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s aggressive demeanour and politically suspect agenda offends many, care must be taken not to automatically dismiss everything she says because of dislike, or for her apparent embrace of certain views of disgraced anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Stephen Goodson. Her punting of someone like him has led outraged Jewish leaders to demand she distance herself from him.

We live in complicated times in a country struggling to find its way, where important debates are often stifled by people shouting each other down. Mkhwebane is particularly unpopular when compared to her predecessor Thuli Madonsela, who won the hearts of South Africans by confronting the country’s most powerful people on the issue of state capture by the Gupta family.

For Jews, it is alarming that Mkhwebane seems to be oblivious to the inflammatory implications of aligning herself with a figure such as Goodson – a sinister sign for someone occupying so politically sensitive a position. She has referred positively to a Goodson book entitled A History of Central Banking (and the Enslavement of Mankind). Adolf Hitler and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi appear on its cover. She needs to be educated to the fact that the moment the word Hitler or Nazi is mentioned, rational debate is shut down by images of Auschwitz. It is strange that she seems not to know that – or to be ignoring it. Where is she taking instructions from?

Anti-Semitism in South Africa has remained consistently low compared to many other countries worldwide. Mkhwebane threatens this by injecting suspicion towards Jews into the public arena through association with the likes of Goodson. The important role of Jewish businesspeople, professionals and others in the South African economy could be exploited by populist politicians with mischievous agendas. In our convoluted political environment, this is extremely dangerous.

Her recommendation last week, apparently based partly on her reading of Goodson, that Parliament should initiate a process to change the Constitution’s definition of the Reserve Bank’s mandate – its inflation targeting framework – has been slammed across the political spectrum, including by ANC heavyweights insisting that she has over-reached her constitutional powers. Her task is to do what the Constitution demands of her, not attempt to change it. The Reserve Bank’s independence is crucial, particularly in an environment where our democratic institutions are all under attack.

Mkhwebane has earned many times over the distrust she is now subject to. But not everything she has uttered about governance is unworthy of discussion – including the Reserve Bank’s mandate. However, it would be taken more seriously if it came from someone with credibility. This country desperately needs to extract itself from the hole of low growth, poverty and inequality into which it has sunk. Other successful countries have adopted different models for the role of banks in economic growth, while retaining their independence.

Goodson joined the SA Reserve Bank in 2003 as a director and in May 2012 resigned under public pressure because of his anti-Semitic views. He has expressed admiration for Hitler’s economic policies, and said international bankers (read: Jews) financed and manipulated the Second World War against Germany because its leader’s model of state capitalism threatened them.

In an interview in 2011 with American talk show host Deanna Spingola on Republic Broadcasting Network – a radical rightwing radio station – he said the Holocaust was a “huge lie” with the objective “to extract enormous sums of money from the Germans as compensation.” International bankers, he added, “tarnished that whole period as being one of great evil in order to keep you blind to what is possible.” He praised the social achievements during the Third Reich.

Is Mkhwebane captured by the Zuma-Gupta self-enrichment project? Does her association with Goodson and his views serve their agenda? Jews and other South Africans are correct in being alarmed.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Does ‘Never Again’ apply only to Jewish loss?

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When will babies stop dying in Syria? The war which has raged since 2011 is described as a genocide. As Jews remembered the Holocaust on Sunday, questions were asked about why the Syrian carnage is allowed to continue.

WHEN Holocaust survivor Don Krausz talked movingly on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday to a packed audience at West Park cemetery, Johannesburg, about his experiences as a boy in the Nazi concentration camps, an uneasy question hung in the air about what Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust who was in the Buchenwald camp, said in a recent interview on Israel’s Army Radio – that another “shoah” or holocaust was taking place on Israel’s northern border in the six-year Syrian war.

Lau said what is happening is unequivocally a holocaust. He stepped into contentious territory by using this term, which contemporary dictionaries regard as applying only to the Holocaust in the Second World War in which six million Jews died. He also implied Israel should be doing something to stop the carnage.

For South African Jews, Syria seems a far-away conflict they can do nothing about. And they have huge problems in their own country to deal with. Yet SA Jewry’s strong ties to Israel, which borders on Syria, adds weight to the issue. And the prolific use of the phrase ‘Never Again’ in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day raises a moral imperative.

In the planning of the annual event, it would be appropriate to mention Syria. It would not detract from memorialising Jewish Holocaust victims, but would indicate that the message is taken seriously.

A theme always present in Holocaust Remembrance Day is that the world’s nations did little to prevent European Jews’ mass murder, when they could have saved many. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria today, yet the world powers stand by and let it go on.

Half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed and 11 million displaced, many becoming refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries. Chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin have been used against civilians. In 2013, artillery shells containing sarin killed 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta; earlier this month Syrian air force planes launched it in bombs. Last December, a quarter of a million civilians were besieged in Aleppo by President Bashir al-Assad’s regime, with the slaughter of hundreds every day.

What could little Israel be expected to do, aside from treating wounded Syrian victims in Israeli hospitals, which it is doing? Its army is strong, but it is a tiny country with many enemies in a chaotic region. Yet Rabbi Lau pleaded for action, and former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has said Israel could destroy Syrian aircraft used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians. Others have suggested establishing a humanitarian corridor for civilians, or a no-fly zone alongside Israel’s border, in alliance with America or other countries so it would not be solely an Israeli operation.

Israel would risk being sucked into the conflict, which is extremely complicated as Assad’s forces, the rebels, Al-Qaeda and ISIS battle it out, with major powers like Russia, Iran and the United States supporting or opposing different sides, amidst the Sunni-Shi’ite hatred which dates back to the founding of Islam. Many commentators believe Syria must ultimately be partitioned into a Shi’ite-controlled western area, a Sunni-controlled eastern area, and a Kurdish-controlled northern area.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes Israel getting involved, said in an interview: “…Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

The term ‘Never Again’ was intended to ensure that the world would not again allow people – not only Jews – to be slaughtered by mass murderers. It has failed, as shown by the Rwandan genocide and events in Bosnia and Darfur, among others. Now Syria. Former US President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 after Ghouta. Donald Trump will likely follow suit.

Lau has been criticized for his statements. But Holocaust centres worldwide attempt to make the Jewish experience a universal lesson. Johannesburg’s new Holocaust and Genocide Centre, pioneered by Tali Nates – whose father and uncle were on the famous ‘Schindler’s list’ and were thereby saved from the Nazis – stresses the importance of recognising and preventing genocide anywhere. Avner Shalev, the chairman of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – said the international community must “end the human suffering [in Syria] and provide humanitarian aid to the victims.”

There is no easy answer to Israel’s and the Jews’ role in a world which is again allowing genocide. But the phrase ‘Never Again’ would sound more authentic if it was applied to Syria.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Minorities in South Africa: Where has all the passion gone?

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SA Jews have engaged widely in broader society, but as a tiny minority fear the future under Jacob Zuma’s government. Many are withdrawing or leaving. In the picture, pioneering choreographer Sylvia Glasser meets in 2003 with black dancers she trained though her company Moving Into Dance     (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

WITH the rising political chaos in South Africa as the populace reels under the corrupt, inept rule of President Jacob Zuma’s government, it is impossible to know what the country will look like ten years from now. A realignment of its politics is underway, as the once-great liberation movement the African National Congress appears to be close to breaking apart under the pressure of its warring internal factions.

All South Africans are feeling the anxiety, including minority groups such as the Afrikaners and Jews, who feel particularly threatened since they are largely excluded from the inner circles of power. The sense of powerlessness of minority groups is profound as they watch people well-connected to Zuma’s government sell this country down the river with incompetence and corruption.

When criticism of the government and Zuma is voiced too loudly by white people, accusations of racism tend to be hurled back at them, silencing many well-meaning citizens who don’t have the stomach for the fight. It is a form of “disenfranchisement” of minorities by what has become a majoritarian government rather than a democratic one. For many minorities, the response is to withdraw into separate laagers, to look after their own interests as best they can.

Looking at it through a Jewish prism, a high profile Jewish conference which took place last weekend, drawing some 5000 participants – the annual Sinai Indaba held at the prestigious Sandton Convention Centre in northern Johannesburg – illustrated the degree to which mainstream South African Jewry is withdrawing from engagement with the country.

The conference which featured international speakers on numerous topics, was lauded as a great success by many, and anybody who attended would have been struck by the speakers’ high quality and thought-provoking presentations about Judaism and Jewish-related topics. But the speakers and programme contained almost no reference to what it means to be Jewish in the specifically local South African context, the here-and-now of a country drowning in poverty, inequality and corrupt politics.

But South Africa is where most Sinai Indaba participants actually live. They face complex challenges about what it means to live in a rapidly changing, troubled society with an uncertain future. Jews constitute only 0.13 per cent of the population of 55 million. It is common knowledge that many have given up on this country over the years and have left, or are in the process of doing so. The Jewish population has shrunk from about 125 000 in the 1970s to some 70 000 today.

But for the ones who are staying, a meaningful understanding of their place here as part of a tiny minority which is growing ever smaller, is crucial to how they operate as citizens. Local rabbis, lay leaders and individuals grapple with it constantly.

South African Jews have in the past played a significant role in the social and political affairs of the country. Iconic names in politics, law, welfare and the arts spring to mind, such as parliamentarian Helen Suzman, jurists Arthur Chaskalson and Issie Maisels, underground activists Joe Slovo and Dennis Goldberg, Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer, choreographer Sylvia Glasser and many others. Jewish organisations and individuals have engaged intensely in the society over the years, often at personal risk during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women, the United Sisterhood and others. But now their older members complain that they are being replaced by fewer younger people, whose interests lie elsewhere.

The latest government debacle last week, with potentially disastrous consequences, is about Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s failure to put in place proper mechanisms for paying social grants on April 1 to some 17 million of the poorest, most vulnerable South Africans who depend on these meagre amounts to keep going. The disgrace of it should stir all people, including Jews, Afrikaners and others into urgent action to demand that those who created the crisis be brought to book. But the chances are that Dlamini, who is in Zuma’s close circle, will somehow be let off the hook, and the protestors will be sidelined to once again question where the country is headed.

Minority groups are asking what their future is here. For example, how many Jews will be left in South Africa in ten years’ time and what kind of community will it be? If current trends continue, it will be smaller than today. Will it be engaged meaningfully in the broader society, or live in a tiny bubble of its own, insular and inward-looking?

There are no easy answers, except to say visionary leadership is needed. There are no obvious candidates in place, but nature hates a vacuum.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Wacky Steven Cohen nudges South Africans out of their comfort zones

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Challenging tired old comfort zones: Performance artist Steven Cohen poses new ways of looking at art, identity and politics in the confusing context of South Africa today

WHEN 54-year old, controversial performance artist Steven Cohen astonished a sober gathering of arts lovers two weeks ago at the Wits Art Museum by bursting into the centre of them and doing his bizarre dance routine, anybody who happened to be thinking about something else was instantly riveted. He was dressed – actually only partially dressed, since much of his body was naked – in an outrageous get-up consisting of lily-white skin, high-heeled pointed shoes, naked backside behind half a black dress, and other tricks.

His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone. But it left intriguing questions about what is art and identity, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?

The gathering marked the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past fifty years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing. The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, celebrated artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.

Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions about identity, something he has done for the past twenty years, is a metaphor for the unpredictable events unfolding in this country today. Such as the thrashing which the ANC’s tired old men – epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts – received in the recent elections at the hands of the young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition parties, which are bursting with fresh energy. The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their political careers. Anything is possible.

In similar fashion, this country and its component minorities, including Greeks, Jews, Afrikaners and others, are in need of new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.

What will this country look like in twenty years time? No-one can say for sure if South Africa’s non-racial project will succeed. And what will minority groups look like, such as the Greeks and Afrikaners, when most of the older generation has passed on?

Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the minority groups continue? If the size of the Jewish community today is already down to a mere 70 000 in a national population of 55 million, only half of its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in twenty years time? And if it is so much smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms? Greeks and Afrikaners are asking similar questions.

Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans who grew up after apartheid – the “born-frees” – do not want to be forced to follow the old Struggle catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. Those are now in the realm of folk history for most people, and things are different. Looking forward is the only meaningful path.

Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up and give a glimpse into a different way of looking at things. And it also needs the courage he has shown in charting his own path, despite the dangers it has sometimes posed. For example, on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998 during a match, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic, half-naked style, and confronted hundreds of conservative, macho, white – mainly Afrikaans – sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.

We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

SA’s politics of rage – please don’t burn our books!

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Is apartheid still to blame for South Africa’s dysfunctional schools? A child walks to school in 2013 in the Eastern Cape. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

AMIDST thousands of tweets responding to the mayhem overtaking the city of Tshwane (Pretoria), with buses and municipal vehicles torched‚ businesses ransacked and roads blocked with mobs and burning tyres, one of the most poignant came from a young man, presumably a student, named Theodore Sebolai: “Please don’t burn the library. Police go protect the library… we have assignments and we’re heavily relying on it, Pleaase!!!”

The current violence exposes the ANC’s vicious internal struggles. The decision from its Luthuli House headquarters to appoint outsider Thoko Didiza as a Tshwane mayoral candidate in the coming municipal elections, overriding local voices, has provoked fury.

But Sebolai’s plea symbolises more than party squabbles. It is about the betrayal of the country’s youth over the past two decades, and how the casualties of government incompetence have been young people’s most precious things, such as education. Last month, 50 schools in the Vuwani area in Limpopo province were burnt down or vandalized in protests following an unpopular government decision to incorporate Vuwani into a new municipality.

Meanwhile, more fortunate South Africans continue going about their lives while anxiously following reports of the instability. The “lucky” ones who possess foreign passports hold them preciously as an insurance policy, and everyone stashes as much money as they can into foreign bank accounts, in case things get so bad that the anarchy comes to their doorsteps.

As far as education is concerned, most who can afford it – middle class people, whether white, black, coloured or Asian – send their children to private or independent schools because of the appalling state of government schools. For example, over 85 per cent of Jewish kids go to Jewish day schools.

In 2013, basic education minister Angie Motshekga admitted to a parliamentary media briefing that “[t]he diagnostic test of the [National Development Plan] said 80 per cent of [South African] schools were dysfunctional”.

Who should we blame for South Africa’s travails? Is it still a result of apartheid, white racism and privilege, and white monopoly capitalism, as radical black politicians claim? Or the ANC’s inept governance, corruption and its lack of vision since 1994? Whatever the answer, we are sliding downwards.

In times of crisis, angry young people often help change things which seem intractable. So it was with the Soweto student uprising of June 1976, the watershed event which initiated the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. Perhaps they will do it this time too with the political leadership.

What about the human right to an education? A 1976 student leader Dan Montsitsi who is deputy chairperson of the June 16, 1976 Foundation, last week warned today’s youth: “[In 1976] we were dodging bullets and teargas… We burnt most of the beer halls throughout Soweto, and all administration board offices. [But] no single school was burnt… Each and every student was hell bent on defending their classrooms.”

Student movements cross red lines and make mistakes, but their militancy and energy tends to focus minds. The controversial “Rhodes must fall” movement at the University of Cape Town, for example, has initiated a crucial national debate about university policies and fees, despite several thuggish episodes such as burning artworks on the campus, the throwing of faeces onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and other violent incidents.

The energy of the youth needs to be affirmed and steered by elders into constructive directions. Ultimately, responsibility for the country’s sorry state lies with politicians – in this case the ANC – for failing to provide hope to young people. In particular, failing to educate them. The catastrophic education system has been described by respected South African commentators such as Judge Dennis Davis as a “crime against humanity”.

Indeed it is, no less than apartheid was. A burnt bus can be replaced tomorrow, but young South Africans whose fresh minds have been squandered by not being educated, will be handicapped for the rest of their lives.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Wit and vision at the grave of Mandela’s lawyer

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Who will replace people like this? Advocate and friend of Mandela, Jules Browde, was of a breed of men shaped by the major events of the twentieth century

IN South Africa’s current political climate, dominated by corrupt politicians’ bluster, unseemly scuffles in Parliament and mobs burning schools and artworks, among other things, it is refreshing to find spots of quietness and integrity behind the public din.

A funeral of a 98-year old man might seem an unlikely place, but such was last Sunday’s event at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg of advocate, activist and Jewish leader Jules Browde, infused with his optimistic wordview and enduring sense of humour. Sad as a good man’s passing is, the feeling was of a life well lived.

The warm friendship during apartheid’s early years between Browde and Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela was the start of a long, meaningful relationship. This took place before Tambo’s exile from the country to lead the ANC, and Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years which interrupted the friendship – it resumed after his release in 1990.

Browde and Mandela had studied law together, and in the 1950s he was the legal counsel for Tambo in his application for admission as an attorney, despite the racial laws. Later, he acted for the legal practice of Mandela and Tambo – successfully – when the apartheid government attempted to evict them from their offices because they were in “white” Johannesburg.

“Today everyone likes to say they knew Mandela, but at that time, to be a friend of Mandela was not popular in white society,” said the rabbi to the mourners who included constitutional court judges, legal figures, artists, activists, and leaders of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim – he was its national president for 25 years.

The brutal application of racial laws by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment without trial, torture, evictions and other means, led Browde and other jurists to establish Lawyers for Human Rights in 1980, which publicised human rights abuses and confronted them through litigation. He was its chairman during the State of Emergency in the mid-80s. After democracy, President Mandela appointed him to investigate irregularities in the appointment of public officials.

A notable figure at the funeral was Johannesburg’s mayor Parks Tau – a member of the ANC ruling party – with an honour guard of black men and women in city uniforms to accompany the coffin to the grave. The rabbi noted with a smile that officially, Browde was still a city employee, evoking a warm nod from Tau. He did not believe in retirement, and still had several months to complete his contract.

Touching obliquely on the corruption issue – the hottest topic in public discourse today – Tau stressed the importance he placed on probity among city officials and Browde’s role in its integrity committee, in which he engaged with over 200 councillors to ensure their financial affairs complied with transparency regulations.

The city had offered him his first five-year contract when he was in his late 80s, despite his wry, humorous warning that because of his age he might not be there to complete it. But he saw it through, and was offered additional five-year contracts.

In a moving scene after completion of the formal Jewish ceremony, the city guard took up shovels and filled the grave with earth – a rare glimpse into a potential South Africa where colour didn’t matter.

The serenity of a worthy life completed, with no need of fanfare. There were no political speeches, cries of “Amandla!” or earnest political party representatives with the red overalls of the  EFF, the blue T-shirts of the DA, the red, green and black symbols of the ANC, or others. No jostling for prominence.

Several women participated in shovelling earth onto his coffin during the ceremony. Although contrary to the Orthodox Jewish community’s custom of calling only on men to do this, it seemed entirely natural – and the rabbis did not stir. And when it came to the family saying kaddish at the end, his wife of 68 years, Selma, also participated with her sons. Again, this seemed entirely natural, though it was not the usual custom for women to do it. But for Browde, no-one would be excluded.

The generation of Jewish men who were born in the early part of the twentieth century – like Browde – were moulded by major events such as the Second World War against Hitler in which he fought for five and a half years in the South African artillery; the flourishing and expansion of South African Jewry; life under apartheid and the choice of whether and how to resist it; and the idealism for building a new, humane state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Some of them, like Browde, became allies of giants like Mandela and Tambo.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was intended to heal wounds of apartheid by giving victims and perpetrators of atrocities the chance to face each other and tell their stories.

But reconciliation has fallen far short of its goal. The country stands at a dangerous crossroad – will it continue descending into violence, corruption and cynicism, or regain the idealism of Mandela’s rainbow nation?

Most of Browde’s peers – the visionaries and activists – have passed on. Who will replace them to help this confused, increasingly cynical country find its way?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Bad Jews and Afrikaners agonise over their South Africanness

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An image in the exhibition ‘Ik ben een Afrikander’ at a Johannesburg gallery which explores the complex Africanness of Afrikaners, shows a man sewing the new SA flag  (image by Strijdom van der Merwe)

IT is ironic that the provocative play ‘Bad Jews’ – a brilliant romp through the minefield of Jewish ideals and neuroses – is performing to packed houses in Johannesburg at the same time as the saga of Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who fled Israel because of sexual harassment charges and is wanted by Interpol, is playing itself out in a neighbourhood just north of the city. They both impact on the Jewish community’s sense of their belonging in South Africa, and who should take responsibility for Jewish behaviour, whether good or bad.

This echoes another minority group’s struggle in the post-apartheid country – the Afrikaners, who not that long ago ruled the country. Their anxieties are equally sharp, epitomised by a current exhibition in a Parkwood gallery entitled ‘Ik ben een Afrikander’, and by the political activism of the Afrikaners’ advocacy organisation Afriforum, demanding that their language and culture remain respected and relevant.

Bad Jews is on at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Written by US Jewish playwright Josh Harmon, it explores the myriad quirks embedded into Jewish identity, expertly portrayed in the past by show-biz figures like Woody Allen. But this show updates them to the 21st millennium, throwing in everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘politically correct’ Jewish intellectuals who scorn their Jewish heritage but are fascinated by other cultures, the Holocaust’s significance – or lack of it – for young Jews, women’s religious roles as rabbis, and overprotective mothers. And, of course, the eternal biggie: marrying out, and the alarm in a Jewish man’s family when he falls for a blonde, blue-eyed gentile woman and proposes marriage.

While Bad Jews was written in New York about American Jews, South African Jews carry the same baggage, with the added huge challenge of trying to find their secure place in a rapidly changing, confused South African society ridden by racial tensions and roller-coaster politics.

Rabbi Berland is a charismatic leader of a fundamentalist Jewish sect who has resided for several months in a hotel north of Johannesburg with hundreds of his followers. The SA police have tried, unsuccessfully, to arrest him for extradition to Israel. He always manages to slip away, allegedly because of tipoffs from shady sources.

What has this got to do with the SA Jewish community? Mainstream SA Jewish organisations, secular and religious, have collectively demanded that Berland return to Israel to face the law. In contrast, if an individual Christian were to break the law, it is unlikely the churches would feel it necessary to issue a statement distancing themselves from him. They would simply let the law take its course.

Given their history, Jews are inherently insecure and feel the need to protect their image among non-Jewish South Africans. After all, anti-Semites are always looking for ammunition. Being a white minority group in today’s confused South Africa adds another toxic layer to the problem. Who knows when a populist politician – such as Julius Malema – might accuse Jewish ‘capitalists’ of being responsible for the country’s malaise?

The Afrikaners’ crisis of identity has other threads. The exhibition in Parkwood explores their sense of Africanness not from the point of view of insecurity, but resentment. Legend has it that the first person to have identified himself as an Afrikaner, Hendrik Biebouw, in 1707, proclaimed “Ik ben een Afrikander” when threatened with expulsion from the Cape. He did not want to leave South Africa. The exhibition contains works of five white artists and a black one, who were born prior to 1994 – the year of democratic elections – and whose formative years coincide with the transition to democracy.

One main work is a triptych of three huge colour photographs showing an Afrikaans man who looks like a farmer sitting in an open field with a flag draped over his knees. The first picture is a flag of a pre-1910 Boer republic, morphing in the second picture into the old apartheid-era South African flag with its embedded Union Jack and the flags of the Boer republics. The third picture shows him dismantling and reconstructing that flag it as it morphs into the new South African flag. There is an intense, conflicted expression on his face.

Afrikaners feel their language and culture being threatened. For example Stellenbosch University, one of the most prestigious Afrikaans institutions during apartheid, last year bowed to public pressure and decided the main language of instruction would in future be English. Afriforum insists on an Afrikaner’s right to continue being taught in his ‘mother tongue’ and intends approaching the courts to ensure Afrikaans remains a language of instruction in universities. Afriforum Youth spokesman Ian Cameron said: “There is absolutely no reason why we, as an Afrikaans group, don’t deserve the same treatment as any other group in the country. We are here to build a nation and to make sure that everyone – all groups – deserve and get equal recognition right across the country.”

So who and what is a South African and where do Afrikaners and Jews fit? Their plight is not completely separate from the struggle of the majority of black South Africans, who are asking the question about themselves. The piercing American play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, which opened last Friday at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre to a capacity house, kept the overwhelmingly black, middle class audience spellbound. Timed to coincide with Black History Month, it portrays the search of black Americans for ethnic pride against whites, and the struggle of young blacks to rise from poverty after the previous generation had fought for civil rights under leaders like Martin Luther King.

The question of South Africanness will not be settled in this generation. Maybe not even the next. In the meantime, it’s a fascinating terrain, although scary at times.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)